Tonight is my weekly women’s circle, and I’m looking forward to it as I always do. It’s not a perfect space (we are all human and we don’t always know how to hold space for each other), but it is beautifully imperfect. We show up – sometimes 2 women and sometimes 12 – with our scars, our fragility, our fierceness, and our love, and we offer each other the kind of listening we don’t find many other places in our lives. We don’t fix anything or offer advice or platitudes. We just listen and we hold space for each other.
People often ask me to write about how this women’s circle got started, so I’m finally sitting down to offer our birth story as a gift to anyone else who’d like to create something similar.
I had been longing for a women’s circle for several years before I finally got one off the ground. I had a couple of false starts (circles that got started but then faltered and died), so I was a little leery of trying again, but I kept longing for it and believing it was possible, so I made one more attempt.
Before sending out an invitation to those women I thought might be interested, I spent some time considering what my intentions were and what I wanted from the circle. This is an important step because it helps to shape what evolves. Some of the things I wanted were:
1.) A circle that would nourish me as much as the others in the room. Doing this work for a living means that I hold space for a lot of people but don’t always find ways to have space held for me. The creation of this circle was partly selfish in that I really wanted a space where I could be as vulnerable and flawed and held as anyone else who showed up. I wanted to be intentional about inviting people with a level of maturity that they could hold space for me without expecting me to be the “expert” in the room.
2.) A circle that I didn’t have to own by myself. I didn’t want to host it every week and I didn’t want to be the primary leader. Given my travel schedule, I knew that I wouldn’t always be available, and I wanted the circle to have enough strength that it would exist even if I were away for a long stretch of time. I also didn’t want to have to do the emotional labour of keeping everyone informed, managing people’s feelings if they got left out, etc. The only way for it to work was to have shared and/or rotating leadership.
3.) A circle that was accessible to anyone who needed it. I didn’t want it to be a closed, exclusive group, where only those who were members were allowed in. I often get emails from women looking for a circle like this, so I wanted it to remain open to everyone. I also wanted us to welcome diversity and make people feel welcome no matter their race, religion, abilities, etc. (This was a bit challenging, because I also didn’t want to impose my “rules” on the group if I was not going to be the primary leader. I mentioned this desire to the group and we worked through it together to determine whether it could become a shared intention. In the end, it did.)
4.) A circle that had as few barriers for entry as possible. At first I considered having it in a person’s home, but then I wondered whether strangers would feel welcome in the space and whether accessibility would be an issue for people with disabilities, etc.. I found a wheelchair accessible space in a church on a well-traveled street (with buses available) that was available for low rent. (Note: one of the possible barriers that we haven’t fully addressed is that some people may not feel comfortable stepping into a church, but we haven’t found a more neutral space for as low rent.)
5.) A circle that would meet the needs of those who showed up and wasn’t strictly formed by my own agenda. Though I was being intentional about it in advance, I didn’t want to attach too many preconceived notions about what would happen in the circle, how often we’d meet, etc. For it to be collectively owned, I knew it needed to be collectively formed.
6.) A circle that was story-driven rather than agenda-driven. I wanted to create a space for sharing and listening that would adapt to whatever people brought into the circle each week. I didn’t want to create a book club or study group, but rather a place where we could have spaciousness for vulnerability and relationship building. (Again, though, I had to be careful about not imposing too many of my expectations on the group.)
With these intentions held lightly in mind, I arranged for the space to host the first gathering, and I sent out an email to everyone I knew who’d ever shown interest in being in a women’s circle. I invited them to come with their own ideas of what we might create together. I also created an invitation page on my website and, because I wanted to be inclusive, said that “all who identify as women are welcome”.
I arrived at the church early and set up the circle. The intentions about how a space is arranged helps create the tone of the gathering, so I set up a comfortable circle of chairs, with a small, low table in the centre. I covered the table with a tablecloth and placed on it a candle, a bell, some talking pieces, and a box of tissues. (I have yet to attend a women’s circle where tears don’t flow.) I also brought an assortment of teas and had hot water and teacups ready.
Fifteen women came to that first gathering. I read a poem to open the circle, and then we did a check-in round (passing a talking piece around the circle, inviting people to share a little about who they were and what brought them to circle) and then we had a conversation about what people might want from circle, how often they’d like to hold it, what our shared values were, etc. Someone suggested “I think we should have it every week and even if you can’t make it every week, at least you always know that it’s available to you.” There was enough interest in this suggestion that we decided to make it a weekly gathering.
For the next five months, since I have the most training in hosting a circle, I served as host. I arrived early each week to set up the room, I gave gentle guidance about the practices of circle, (ie. We speak with intention. We listen with attention. We tend the well-being of the circle.), and I helped the group find its own groove.
There were a few bumps those first few months. There was some resistance to the talking piece round, for example (people wanted to interject with questions, advice, etc.), and some said they wanted us to have more free-flowing conversation. Some lamented the fact that we didn’t have more time for informal conversation over tea. We considered whether we should adapt the format, having a circle time and then having a less formal portion of the evening.
In the end, what emerged for our circle was this simple format:
- When people are seated (starting at 7 p.m.), someone rings the bell to call us to pause. Somewhere along the line we adopted three rings as our preferred choice for opening and closing.
- If there are new people in the room, someone (usually whoever brought the bag) shares the principles of circle and a little about the flow of the evening.
- Whoever has brought a poem or quote to share reads it. This is entirely voluntary and not planned. Sometimes we have a reading and sometimes we don’t.
- Then we have our first talking-piece round. Whoever wants to start picks up the talking piece and shares whatever story is on their heart to share. We tend to dive deeply into vulnerable sharing quite quickly. It’s a chance to unload our grief or celebrate our joy – whatever has been going on for us that week. Nobody interrupts and nobody attempts to fix.
- The first sharing round usually takes about an hour. Once that is finished, we put down the talking piece, grab tea if we want it, and have about 20 minutes of informal conversation.
- Depending on how much time we have left (we try to end not too much later than 9 p.m.), we either do another full round of sharing, or do a shorter round with each of us setting an intention for the week.
- When the second talking piece round is complete, we ring the bell again and the circle is over. Usually we’re not in a rush to leave our chairs and we sit for some more informal conversation.
This is the format that works for us and may or may not work for other groups. It allows us to show up without anyone needing to do any advance planning and it frees us up to share without needing to attach our sharing to an agenda or theme.
After about five months of serving as the primary host, I had some travel coming up and knew it was a good time to pass on the leadership. To ease that transition, I created a circle kit that could float from person to person, depending on who was available each week. In a cloth bag, I packed the following items: (Some of which were purchased for the group from our shared funds, which we take a collection for periodically to pay the rent.)
- the key for the building we meet in (with the security code written on the bag)
- a bell
- an assortment of talking pieces
- a tablecloth
- an assortment of teas
- a candle holder and candles
- a box of tissue
- an envelope with the group’s funds
Our circle kit now travels from woman to woman. Each week someone volunteers to take it home and show up the next week to unlock the building and set up the space. Those who take responsibility for the bag have also occasionally replenished it with tea, tissue, and candles. This means that there is no onerous responsibility placed on anybody’s shoulders and we all share the ownership.
There’s been an ebb and flow to the circle. Sometimes we’re strong, regularly attracting ten to twelve women, and sometimes we go through a period when only two women show up each week. Sometimes newcomers come for awhile and then don’t come back. Some members will only come every three months or so, when they can get away from family duties.
It’s hard to know right now what the lifespan of the group will be. Before Christmas, when few people were showing up, we wondered whether it was worth it to keep making the effort. But since then, there’s been a bit of a resurgence, so we carry on. There is enough commitment to it that it seems worth it.
There is a natural lifespan to groups like this, and even if it some day falters and fades away, I will always know that it meant something, that it held an important place in the world and it made a difference for whoever showed up. Many beautiful things have happened in the circle and lives have been changed from being part of it. We’ve opened up in ways we rarely do otherwise. We’ve bonded with each other on an authentic level that’s fairly rare in our culture. We’ve become best friends and it’s not unusual for us to gather for Saturday breakfast, when we want more of each other’s company.
We’ve learned a lot about holding space for each other by showing up week after week without expectation, without agenda, and without advice. We’ve peeled away our masks, shed lots of tears, and weathered many storms together. We’ve gotten better and better at offering each other unconditional love.
If you’re ever in Winnipeg on a Thursday evening, we’d love to have you join us!
If you want to know more about how to start your own circle, here are a few resources:
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My three daughters are all very different in how they view the world, how they communicate and how they process emotions. One of the most challenging things I’ve had to learn as their mom is that I have to listen to them differently.
One is introverted and takes a long time to process things, so even when I sense that something might be bothering her, I often have to wait a couple of weeks before I’ll hear about it. One is more extroverted and tends to think and experience the world the most like I do, so I often make the mistake of assuming I know things about her before I’ve taken the time to genuinely listen. A third is very private about her emotions and uses humour as one of her ways of processing the world, so I have to listen extra carefully for the subtle things she’s saying underneath the witticism.
I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of times I don’t. There are a surprising number of things that get in the way of good listening. Sometimes there are too many distractions, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes they’ve hurt my feelings and I’m resentful, and sometimes I just want them to be more like me so I don’t have to work so hard to figure them out.
Listening takes a lot of practice. Even though we develop our ability to hear while still in utero (unless we’re hearing impaired), genuine empathic listening is a skill that takes much longer to develop. And even when we’ve worked hard to develop it, we often mess it up.
Not only does listening take a lot of practice, it takes a lot of vigilance and intentionality to stay in it. Sometimes in a coaching session, for example, I’ll be in deep listening mode and suddenly something will distract me or trigger me and I’ll have to work really hard to stay present for the person in front of me. I can’t always identify what it was that pulled me away – it can be a body sensation (ie. my throat suddenly feeling like it’s closing, triggered by something they said), an emotional response (ie. my eyes fill with tears and suddenly I’m in my own story instead of theirs), or my own ego (ie. wanting to insert my own answer to their problem rather than wait for them to find their solution). Each time something like that happens, I have to bring my attention back to the person in front of me.
Over the weekend, I asked my Facebook friends a series of questions about listening.
1. What do you think are the best indicators that someone is genuinely listening to you?
2. What do you think are the indicators that someone is NOT genuinely listening to you?
3. When do you find it most challenging to listen to another person?
4. What personal work, self-care, etc. helps you be a better listener?
There were a lot of great answers to my questions. (Click on each question to see all of the responses.) Here’s a summary of some of the things that struck me in the answers:
- Genuine listening can’t be faked. While there were a lot of responses about outward signals that someone is listening (eye contact, bodily engagement, good questions), there wasn’t agreement about which signals were most valuable and there was lots of indication that people need to have a genuine felt sense that the person listening is fully present.
- Culture and context matter. Some cultures, for example, don’t value eye contact. And some contexts (ie. when the speaker has a lot of shame or trauma) require a more nuanced form of listening that may mean no eye contact and/or no questions.
- “Ultimately, a good listener allows the person they are listening to to hear THEMSELVES.” (Chris Zydel) When we, as listeners, interject too much of ourselves in the act of listening (questions, interruptions, too much body language, etc.) we can pull the person away from the depth and openheartedness of their own story.
- Genuine listening involves stilling your body and mind so that you can be fully present. In response to the question about indicators when someone is not listening, several people mentioned fidgeting, checking devices, not making eye contact, looking past the speaker, nodding too much, etc., indicating that when we are being listened to, we are usually perceptive to the body signals that a person is genuinely engaged with us.
- The behaviour of the person speaking strongly impacts our ability to listen to them. Approximately three quarters of the answers to the question about when people find it most challenging to listen to another person were about the speaker’s behaviour (when they are self-righteous, condescending, not willing to be openminded, basing their opinions on propaganda, performing rather than speaking from the heart, etc.) rather than the listeners. Fewer people identified their own blocks (when I am angry, weary, in disagreement, wrapped up in my own stuff, unwell, traumatized, etc.)
- Both speaker and listener have to be engaged and willing to be openhearted for it to work. Genuine listening is a two-way street and it can’t happen when one or the other is checked out, distracted or not being honest with themselves. If the speaker is closed off or defensive, it shuts down the ability to listen. If the listener is closed off, triggered, etc., it shuts down the speaker’s willingness to be vulnerable.
- Genuine listening requires self-awareness and good self-care. When we have done our own healing work, paid attention to our own triggers, and taken time to listen to ourselves first, we are in a much better position to listen to others.
Much of what I’ve learned about both listening and speaking, I’ve learned by practicing and teaching The Circle Way. The three practices of circle are: 1. To speak with intention: noting what has relevance to the conversation in the moment. 2. To listen with attention: respectful of the learning process for all members of the group. 3. To tend the well-being of the circle: remaining aware of the impact of our contributions.
Gathering in The Circle Way means that we slow conversation down and give more intentional space to both speaking and listening. When we use the talking piece, for example, there are no interruptions, cross-talk, etc. Nobody redirects what you’re saying by interjecting their own questions, nobody diminishes your wisdom by interjecting their answers to your problems, and everybody is trusted to own their own story and look after the circle by not taking up too much space or time. It can take a lot of practice (some people are quite resistant to talking piece council because they don’t feel it’s genuine conversation if no questions are allowed), but once you get used to the paradigm shift, it’s quite transformational.
According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in “Leading from the Emerging Future”, there are four levels of listening.
- Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
- Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
- Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
- Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.
Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels, because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability and openness. There is no risk in downloading, because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little more risky because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the most risky of all, because it requires that we be willing to change everything – behaviour, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.
Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change, but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.
For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white, and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an “emerging future”, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.
On a more personal level, generative listening as a mother means that I have to own my own mistakes and listen for the ways I may have wounded my daughters.
Not long ago, I was speaking with my oldest two daughters about some of the past conflict in our home, and I heard things that were hard to hear about how they felt betrayed by me when I didn’t protect them and didn’t help them maintain healthy boundaries. Everything in me wanted to defend myself and get them to understand my point of view, but I knew I would only do more damage if I did that. If I wanted our relationship to grow deeper and our home to feel more safe for all of us, I had to listen to their pain and not shut it down.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have been nearly as receptive to my daughters’ words. Some of it, in fact, they tried to tell me then but I didn’t listen. Back then, I was still too wounded and didn’t have enough self-awareness to listen well. I would be much quicker to jump to my own defence or to offer a short-sighted solution.
Through the healing of my own wounds, I am much more able to hold space for theirs.
I’ve learned to listen better to my daughters, but there are still some spaces where I have a very difficult time engaging in generative listening. Some of the spaces I still have difficulty with are when I have to face too many of my own flaws, when the person speaking triggers unhealed trauma memories, or when the other person has more power or influence in a situation than I do. I will continue to heal and build resilience so that I am not shut down in these spaces. Some of that involves listening to myself more deeply and finding spaces where I am genuinely listened to.
This is not easy work, and it doesn’t happen by accident. Learning to listen is a lifelong journey that starts with the healing of the wounds that get in the way.
If you want to be a better listener, start by listening to yourself.
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I was on a fourteen hour train ride between Brisbane and Sydney the day the U.S. election was sealing the fate of the country for the next four years. I’d chosen train travel over flight because, after the intensity of facilitating two sold out retreats and a one-day workshop in a country far from home, I needed many hours of integration, electronic disconnection, solitude, and staring out the window at the vast countryside. Slow travel offers me self-care in times like those.
For those fourteen hours, I had no access to internet, so I didn’t know who won the election until hours after it had been announced.
I say that I didn’t know, but really… I DID know. Hours before an astonished fellow traveler announced to the rest of us in the railcar what she’d read online, a sudden ominous, panicky feeling engulfed me and I knew intuitively what the outcome was. I had a strong sense of the shadow showing itself in the world. I knew that the world was about to change – and not in a good way. I didn’t want to believe it, but when the woman exclaimed “Has the whole world gone mad?!” my fears were confirmed. A man who is openly misogynistic, racist, narcissistic, and emotionally immature is about to become the leader of arguably the most powerful country in the world.
Yes, I’m Canadian, and my life and the lives of my children may not change dramatically because of this election, but what happens in the U.S. affects the world. What hurts my Muslim, Black, GLBTQ+, Indigenous, and Mexican sisters and brothers hurts me. And this is not an isolated incident – it comes too quickly on the heals of Brexit to not be seen as a global pendulum swing toward protectionism and the far right.
There is good reason for the ominous feelings in the pits of so many of our stomachs. White supremacy and the patriarchy have reared their ugly heads and they appear to be winning this round. The shadow is big and ominous and it demands to be seen.
Just a few days before sitting on that train, I had a similar ominous feeling in the pit of my stomach, but this time it was much more personal and close to home. I was facilitating the second retreat at Welcome to the BIG House when things started to go sideways. No, they were not on the “Trump winning the election” global scale of ominous, but not unlike what’s happening in the U.S., group shadow had showed up at the retreat and was threatening to derail everything we’d worked to build.
I’d known from the start of the retreat that something was slightly out-of-balance. It started with a gut feeling when I walked into the room and it continued when the opening sharing round did not invite as much vulnerability and trust as it normally tends to. The next morning, I was even more certain that there was some stuck energy in the group when a simple exercise fell flat. We were simply trying to walk in a circle together, looking down at the words we’d placed on the floor, but, try as we might, we couldn’t get the circle to move. We were stuck.
It was hard to put a finger on what was going on. There were beautiful, openhearted people in the room who came willing to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation. Nobody was openly disruptive or serving as an “energy-vampire”. When we moved into smaller circles, the energy flowed more easily and intimacy and trust seemed more present, but when we were in the large group, there was a flatness and disconnection that didn’t seem to shift.
I questioned everything. Was the group too big? Had the purpose of the retreat been unclear and so people arrived with differing expectations and intentions? Was I trying to mix together the wrong content? Was my ego getting in the way? Was there some underlying conflict I didn’t know about? Was there a cultural disconnect I didn’t understand? I didn’t have the answer.
On the afternoon of the second last day of the retreat, we started to talk about shadow. I explained how shadow is made up of all of the things that we keep out of sight because we’re afraid to bring them into the light. These are not necessarily all bad things – they are simply the things we fear will make us feel unsafe if we reveal them. Beginning with an exploration on personal shadow before we moved on to group shadow, I invited the group into a guided meditation in which each person explored the messages they’d received in childhood about which parts of their personality and identity they’d learned to keep hidden because it wasn’t safe to reveal them. “Perhaps you learned to keep your voice down because you learned it was unsafe to be too loud. Perhaps you hid your body because revealing it wasn’t safe.”
Before we could move into a conversation about group shadow, the shadow showed up and revealed itself to us. A few people in the room spoke about the shadow that was coming up for them within the container of this retreat. (Giving more specific information would betray confidences, so I will simply say that they were honest about their personal shadow and how it might be contributing to what was happening in the group.) As soon as the words were spoken, it felt like a bomb had been tossed into the room. Suddenly there was something staring us in the face that many of us were afraid to speak of. Some were confused and disoriented by it, and all felt some measure of discomfort.
What should we do now? Everyone looked to me, hoping I could magically make the bomb go away. I knew I couldn’t do that alone and I knew we didn’t have enough time or energy left in the day to fully dismantle it.
With my head spinning in circles like a roulette wheel trying to land on the right number, I reached deep for what my intuition told me was the next right step. “It’s late in the day, we need a meal and a rest, and I don’t believe that we have the space and time to fully address what just happened,” I said. “We need a strong container to hold the shadow that just showed up, and we can’t be strong if we don’t care for ourselves first. I know that, as the circle host, my resources are spent at this point in the day, so I don’t think we’ll serve ourselves well if we stick with this right now. I’m going to suggest that we close with a check-out round, and then we each do what we need to do to care for ourselves throughout the evening. In the morning, when we are refreshed, we will come back into the circle and hold the space for what showed up. I will set aside the teaching exercises I had planned so that we can give as much space for this as we can in the short time we have remaining.”
For the check-out round, I asked the question “what are you curious about?” Most people spoke to their curiosity about what had just happened and how it would be resolved. When everyone had spoken, I read the following poem:
Lost (by David Wagoner)
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest know
Where you are. You must let it find you.
In closing, I offered this invitation. “Tonight, I invite you to sit with your discomfort. Go sit with the trees, if that helps. Don’t try to resolve it too quickly. Sit with it and ask what it is here to teach you. Because in your discomfort is great opportunity for growth, learning, and transformation.”
By the time I got back to my own room, I could feel the heaviness of what had just happened settling into my body and I could hear the gremlins beginning to offer their displeasure in my head. “Did I do the right thing? Did I fail the group? Should I have been more forceful or decisive? Will I let them down if I don’t teach the parts of the curriculum I’d planned to teach? Will we really be able to resolve this in the morning? What if everyone leaves the retreat dissatisfied? What if I fail?”
I turned to my go-to self-care stress-reducers. First, I climbed into a bathtub full of hot water and epsom salts. I stayed there for nearly two hours – as long as it took to slow my breath, still my brain, ground my body, and give comfort to my heart. Each time the gremlins attacked, I took deep breaths, said a prayer, and repeated a few of my favourite mantras. I also sent out a couple of SOS text messages to dear friends who would hold space for me from afar, and, after my bath, I unpacked what had happened with Georgia, the owner of The BIG House and the guardian of the circle. As we were talking, sitting in darkness in her living room, two creatures showed up in the room – a large frog by the kitchen sink and a bat flying through the open window and fluttering above our heads.
By the time I climbed into bed, I was relaxed and confident that, if I could get my own ego out of the way, the circle would be strong enough to hold the shadow in the morning.
The next morning, I started by asking the group for their permission to clear out the centre of the circle. We’d let it become cluttered with some creative containers we’d made earlier in the retreat as well as other things that didn’t need to be there. “I want to clear out the centre,” I said, “to remind us of the intention that brought us here this weekend. This retreat is called ‘Living with an Open Heart’, and that is what we came here to do. We want to place our intention to be openhearted at the centre of the circle and remind ourselves that, whatever happens in this space, we commit to connecting back to our own open hearts.”
Then I asked the question “How are you arriving?” and passed the talking piece for a check-in round. People were tentative at first, but then there was a gradual opening up and the energy in the room began to shift. It felt like a little light was peeking through a window. Part way through the round, a few people started to open up more than they had before in the large circle.
Once we’d completed a check-in round, I said, “My intuition tells me that we simply need to allow the talking piece to make its way around the circle again and invite people to say whatever they feel needs to be offered into the circle.”
One person asked “aren’t we going to confront the shadow that showed up here yesterday?” I responded with “‘Confront’ isn’t the language I’d like us to use. Instead, let’s do our best to speak with open hearts so that we can reveal and shine light on the shadow that we’ve all brought into the room.”
This time, while the talking piece passed around the room, people cracked open even more, especially those people who’d revealed the shadow the day before. What they offered into the room revealed deep awareness and learning that had happened overnight. Each person was willing to own what she or he had brought into the room.
The energy shift was palpable and people leaned in to the centre in ways they hadn’t before. They were finally beginning to trust the circle to hold their vulnerability and personal shadow. Some profound shifts happened for several people, and one person in particular admitted that this was the very first time she’d ever come to a place where she was safe in a group setting. “When I knew that I was safe to sit with my discomfort and then come back into the room, I felt like I was truly safe with other people for the first time in my life.” She wept and many of us wept with her.
Several people thanked the shadow-bearers. “If you hadn’t spoken what you did into the circle yesterday, we would have walked away with only half of an experience, not knowing what we were missing. This morning was worth every bit of discomfort we felt last night. I am leaving this circle with an open heart.”
We were ending the retreat at noon, so we only had time for a short break and then a check-out round. During check-out, each of us spoke to what we were taking with us from the retreat, and many spoke of life-changing shifts they’d experienced.
“Some of you were uncomfortable giving up the teachings that I had prepared for this morning,” I said, “but if I had pushed through with my curriculum, it would have come from a place of ego and not openheartedness and it would not have served the good of the group. Also, all of the things I had planned would have kept you in your heads, but what happened here this morning brought us all back to our hearts. You have taught each other much more valuable lessons than I could have taught you.”
A few days later, when I was on the train and had received the news of Trump’s election, I thought back to our experience at the retreat and wondered what it had to teach us about the state of the world right now.
Just like at the retreat, there is an underlying shadow in the world that we haven’t always known how to talk about. There have been some brave souls who’ve spoken about it throughout history, but many have been killed, tortured, or ostracized for their efforts and the rest of us have been scared off by what they’ve endured. If I were to give it a name, I would use words like “patriarchy” and “white supremacy”. There are other related words… “consumerism, greed, environmental destruction, protectionism, etc.”
It’s been under the surface for a very long time and, collectively, we’ve tried to ignore it because it brings up shame and fear and makes us feel unsafe to speak of it. But in recent years, it’s been surfacing more and more and there are more and more brave souls willing to speak of it. Many of those brave ones – like those in the Black Lives Matter movement, or those protecting the waters from the Dakota Access Pipeline, or any feminist who dares to face the trolls online – continue to suffer the consequences. The courageous ones continue to do it anyway, because they are called to be the light-bearers.
When you dare to speak of the shadow, it can show up in the room like a bomb that’s been dropped, surprising and disorienting us all. Trump’s presidency is one such bomb dropped into our world, revealing to us the shadow that exists in ALL OF US. We can’t simply blame a few scapegoats – we have to take ownership of this shadow if any real change is to happen.
Just like at the retreat, we need a strong container that can hold space for the shadow. We need people who aren’t afraid to speak of what they hide inside themselves. We need people who will come to the circle with open hearts. We need strong leaders who do not back down in the face of conflict or their own fear. We need people who are willing to sit with their discomfort so that the learning and wisdom can emerge. We need those who will turn to the trees and to the creatures for wisdom and guidance. We need prayer warriors and caregivers. We need those who offer sustenance and shelter. We need warriors and lovers.
We need commitment, courage, compassion, and curiosity.
If there had not been strong and committed people in the room with me at the retreat, there is no way I could have held it alone. The circle would have crumbled and we all would have taken our fear, discomfort, and shadow with us, probably stuffing it further down so that it would emerge in much more destructive ways later on. The shadow doesn’t go away – it just goes underground for awhile until it finds another crack through which to crawl.
This is my challenge to you – can we gather together the people we need to create a container strong enough to hold this shadow? Can we rally our co-leaders, our allies, our prophets, our teachers, our guardians, our disruptors, our light-bearers, our disenfranchised, our marginalized, our priests, our caregivers, our helpers, our prayer warriors – anyone who is willing to hold the rim while we wrestle with the shadow in our midst? Can we sit with our discomfort long enough to let the learning and wisdom sink deep into our hearts? Can we stand firm in the face of those who continue to hide the light?
Can we commit to real change rather than surface platitudes? Can we dare to face our own shadow so that the collective shadow loses strength?
I believe we can. Let us begin.
“Can’t you just give us clear direction so we know what’s expected of us?” That question was asked of me ten years ago by a staff person who was frustrated with my collaborative style of leadership. He didn’t want collaboration – he simply wanted direction and clarity and top-down decision making.
What I read between the lines was this: “It makes me feel more safe when I know what’s expected of me.” And maybe a little of this: “If you’re the one making decisions and giving directions, I don’t have to share any collective responsibility. If anything goes wrong, I can blame the boss and walk away with my reputation intact.”
I didn’t change my leadership style, but it made me curious about what different people want from leadership and why. While that staff person was expressing a desire for more direction, others on my team were asking for more autonomy and decision-making power. It seemed impossible to please everyone.
I’ve been thinking back to that conversation lately as I watch the incredulous rise to power of Donald Trump. No matter how many sexist or racist comments he makes, no matter how many people with disabilities he makes fun of, and no matter how many small business owners he’s cheated, his support base remains remarkably solid. As he himself has said, he “could shoot someone and not lose votes”. (I’m glad I’m no longer teaching a course on public relations, because he’s breaking all of the “rules” I used to teach and getting away with it.)
It seems implausible that this could happen, but this article on Trump’s appeal to authoritarian personalities helps me make sense of it.
“‘Trump’s electoral strength — and his staying power — have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations,’ political scientist Matthew MacWilliams wrote in Politico. In an online poll of 1,800 Americans, conducted in late December, he found an authoritarian mindset — that is, belief in absolute obedience to authority — was the sole ‘statistically significant variable’ that predicted support for Trump.”
“Authoritarians obey,” says the author of the study, “They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
Authoritarians hold strong values around safety, and they expect a leader to give them what they need. They don’t mind following a bully, as long as that bully is serving THEIR needs for security. Hence the popularity of Trump’s proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border and to keep Muslims from entering the country, and the way his supporters cheered when he told security to throw the protestors out of the places where he was campaigning. He makes his supporters feel safe because he won’t hesitate to rough up “the enemy”. They might even put up with some of the bullying directed at people like them (hence the surprising tolerance of Trump’s behaviour among his female supporters) if it means those who threaten them are kept at bay.
Where does an authoritarian mindset come from? According to the article quoted above, there is evidence that it is passed down from one generation to the next. Religious views can also play a strong role. Those who were conditioned by upbringing and religion to obey the authority figures at all cost are more likely to vote for someone who reflects that kind of leadership. If you grew up never allowed to question authority, no matter how illogical or unbalanced it might seem, then you are more likely to have an authoritarian mindset.
There is also a correlation with how fearful a person tends to be. Those who are, due to personality and/or conditioning, frequently motivated by fear, will be more inclined to trust an authoritarian leader because the clear boundaries such a person establishes is what makes them feel more safe.
Also, it cannot be denied that an authoritarian mindset is associated with a lack of emotional and spiritual development. As Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, those who still cling to the black and white, right and wrong of authoritarianism are choosing to stay stuck in the first half of life. “In the first half of life, success, security, and containment are almost the only questions. They are the early stages in Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs.’ We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life.” Stepping into “second-half-of-life” involves a lot more grey zones and ambiguity, so it’s a more frightening place to be.
Does it matter that some of us prefer authoritarian leadership over other styles? Shouldn’t the rest of us simply adapt a “live and let live” attitude about it and not try to change people? Don’t we all have a right to our own opinions?
Though I am deeply committed to holding space for people in a non-judgemental way (and I tried to create that environment when I was leading the people I mentioned above) I am convinced that it DOES matter. Yes, we should respect and listen without judgement to those who look for authoritarianism, and we should seek to understand their fear, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow their fear and social conditioning to make major decisions about who leads us and how we are lead. That authoritarian mindset is a sign of an immature society and it is holding us back. It must be challenged for the sake of our future.
Around the same time as my staff person asked for more authoritarian leadership from me, I was immersing myself in progressive teachings on leadership such as The Circle Way, The Art of Hosting, and Theory U. These methodologies teach that there is a “leader in ever chair”, that the “wisdom comes from within the circle”, and that “the future is emerging and not under our control”. Though these models can (and do) function within hierarchical structures, they teach us to value the wisdom and leadership at ALL levels of the hierarchy.
Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze (two people I had the pleasure of studying with in my quest for a deeper understanding about leadership), in this article on Leadership in the Age of Complexity and in their book Walk Out Walk On, say that it is time to move from “leader as hero” to “leader as host”.
“For too long, too many of us have been entranced by heroes. Perhaps it’s our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work, to rely on someone else to figure things out. Constantly we are barraged by politicians presenting themselves as heroes, the ones who will fix everything and make our problems go away. It’s a seductive image, an enticing promise. And we keep believing it. Somewhere there’s someone who will make it all better. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s visionary, inspiring, brilliant, trustworthy, and we’ll all happily follow him or her.”
This style of leadership may have served humanity during a simpler time, but that time is past. Now we are faced with so much complexity that we cannot rely on an outdated style of leadership.
“Heroic leadership rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable. No one is in charge of our food systems. No one is in charge of our schools. No one is in charge of the environment. No one is in charge of national security. No one is in charge! These systems are emergent phenomena—the result of thousands of small, local actions that converged to create powerful systems with properties that may bear little or no resemblance to the smaller actions that gave rise to them. These are the systems that now dominate our lives; they cannot be changed by working backwards, focusing on only a few simple causes. And certainly they cannot be changed by the boldest visions of our most heroic leaders.”
Instead of heroes, we need hosts. A leader-as-host knows that problems are complex and that in order to understand the full complexity of any issue, all parts of the system need to be invited in to participate and contribute. “These leaders‐as‐hosts are candid enough to admit that they don’t know what to do; they realize that it’s sheer foolishness to rely only on them for answers. But they also know they can trust in other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done.”
A leader-as-host provides conditions and good group process for people to work together, provides resources, helps protect the boundaries, and offers unequivocal support.
In other words, a host leader holds space for the work to happen, for the issues to be wrestled with, and for the emergence of what is possible from within the circle.
Unlike a host leader, an authoritarian leader hangs onto the past as a model for the future. Consider Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. Instead of holding space for emergence, he knows that his support base clings to the ideal of a simpler, more manageable time. It’s not hard to understand, in this time of complexity, how it can feel more safe to harken back to the past when less was expected of us and the boundaries were more clear (even if that meant more racism and less concern for our environment). Don’t we all, for example, sometimes wish we could be back in our childhood homes when all that was expected of us was that we clean up our toys before bedtime?
But we “can’t go back home again”. The future will emerge with or without us. We can only hope that the right kind of leadership can and will arise (within us and around us) that will help us adapt and grow into it. If not, our planet will suffer, our marginalized people will continue to be disadvantaged, and justice will never be served for those who have been exploited.
In his book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer talks about leadership not being about individuals, but about the capacity of the whole system. “The essence of leadership has always been about sensing and actualizing the future. It is about crossing the threshold and stepping into a new territory, into a future that is different from the past. The Indo-European root of the English word leadership, leith, means ‘to go forth,’ ‘to cross a threshold,’ or ‘to die.’ Letting go often feels like dying. This deep process of leadership, of letting go and letting the new and unknown come, of dying and being reborn, probably has not changed much over the course of human history. The German poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe knew it well when he wrote, ‘And if you don’t know this dying and birth, you are merely a dreary guest on Earth.’”
What he’s talking about is essentially the liminal space that I wrote about in the past. It’s the space between stories, when nobody is in control and the best we can do is to hold space for the emerging future. We, as a global collective, are in that liminal space in more ways than one and we need the leaders who are strong enough to support us there.
With Wheatley and Scharmer, I would argue that an important part of our roles as leaders in this age of complexity is to hospice the death of our old ideas about leadership so that new ideas can be born. Authoritarianism will not serve us in the future. It will not help us address the complexity of climate change. It will not help us address racial or gender inequity.
We need leaders – at ALL levels of our governments, institutions, communities, and families – who can dance with complexity, play with possibility, and sit with their fear. We need leaders who can navigate the darkness. We need leaders who can hold seemingly opposing views and not lose sight of the space in between. We need leaders who know how to hold liminal space.
This is not meant to be a political post, and so I won’t tell you who to vote for (partly because I am Canadian and partly because I’m not sure any candidate in any election I’ve witnessed truly reflects the kind of leadership I’m talking about – they are, after all, products of a system we’ve created which may no longer work for the future).
Instead, I will ask you… how is this style of leadership showing up in your own life? Are you serving as host or hero? Are you holding space for the emerging future? And are you asking it of the leaders that you follow and/or elect? Or are you still clinging to the past and hoping the right hero will ride in on a white horse to save us?
It’s time to stop waiting. There are no heroes who can save us. There is only us.
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Note: If you’re interested in exploring more about what it means to have “a leader in every chair”, consider joining me and my colleague, Sharon Faulds, for a workshop on The Circle Way, November 24-26.
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On the plane earlier this week, I was reading a new book on narrative coaching that had been sent to me by the author, David Drake. I worked and studied with David a few years ago when we were trying to create the (sadly ill-fated) Canadian Centre for Narrative Coaching, and he’d included a piece I wrote at that time in the introduction of this recently released book. (I was pleased to discover that he also included a quote from me in a chapter on holding space.)
When I read the following sentence (a quote from Ram Dass) I had to stop and put the book down for a while…
Do not speak unless you can improve on silence.
That’s one of those powerful, weighty sentences that could change a person’s life.
“What would it mean to build that habit into my everyday life?” I wondered, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
What if I were intentional about speaking only when it improves on the silence?
Would I hurt people less frequently?
Would my words have more weight and less waste?
Would I pause more intentionally before interrupting or correcting people?
Would the conversations I’m in shift their tone?
Would I be more fully present for people’s stories?
Not long ago, a participant at a workshop I’d co-facilitated gave some feedback that hurt a little at first, but was valuable for me to hear. “Sometimes you talk too much,” he said. It caught me off guard, because I try to be very intentional about not claiming too much space and allowing all of the voices in the room to be heard. (That’s the nature of The Circle Way – especially when we pass a talking piece around, each person has equal space to be heard.) But after I sat with it for awhile, I realized that there was truth in what he said.
Sometimes, I do talk too much. When I’m feeling insecure about the content I’m teaching, I talk too much. When I notice people disengaging and I begin to worry that they’re not catching on, I talk too much. When someone disagrees with me and I feel the need to defend myself, I talk too much. It’s not just in teaching settings – it happens in my daily life too. When I’m frustrated with my children and I need them to understand me, I talk too much. When I’m feeling misunderstood by a friend, I talk too much.
For me (and maybe for you), talking too much is directly connected to my ego. When my ego feels threatened, I talk too much. When my ego needs attention, I talk too much.
When I am more grounded in True Self, I let go of my need to over-explain, justify, or defend, and I am more intentional about how much I speak and how much I honour silence.
In this noisy world, it’s counter-cultural to believe that silence can have more value than wasted words. Consider the last conversation you were in. When everyone fell silent, did you feel uncomfortable? Did you feel the pressure to speak, if only to fill the void? What would happen if you simply allowed the silence to happen?
One of the practices of The Circle Way is the council of silence. When anybody in the circle feels the need for a pause, they ask the guardian to ring the bell, and then we sit in silence for a few moments until the bell is rung a second time. It’s a beautiful and intentional choice to sit for a moment within the gravitas of someone’s words or the emotions that have arisen in the circle. The more I sit in circles, the more I wish we could incorporate a similar practice in our everyday conversations.
The pauses make our conversations more meaningful and they teach us how to be better listeners.
Intentional silence is one of the most important principles of holding space. To hold space for other people (and for ourselves) we have to know when to speak and when to remain silent. When our egos get in the way, we want to offer advice, improve on someone’s story, control the outcome, or at least let people know how smart we are. All of those things are detrimental to the process of holding space. They draw the attention away from the person you’re holding space for and draw it toward yourself.
“Silence is a place in which your restless minds, internal chatter, and fragmented attention can find the stillness you need to listen well.” David Drake
If you want to listen well, you have to learn when not to speak.
Sometimes our words improve on the silence, but often they do not. When we pay close attention, we will learn to discern the difference.